A Young Jesuit Reflects on 50 Years of Social Justice

The author, Matt Ippel, SJ, listens during a session of the Jubilee of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) in Rome at the Jesuit Curia.

When I share my vocation story, I reference three people who asked me, “Matt, have you ever thought about being a Jesuit?” Three people, at three different moments, each knowing me well, posed a question I never asked myself. After the third “ask”, I decided that I needed to process this potentially life-altering question. I am not alone in this. The U.S. Jesuit vocations team noted that it often takes ‘popping the question’ three times for someone to begin discerning a Jesuit vocation. 

 During the Jubilee gathering of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) of the Society of Jesus, held in early November in Rome, another set of three emerged.

Our five-day congress from November 4th to 8th commemorated the past 50 years of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) 1 with a grateful and honest disposition to continue the discernment of how the Spirit is inviting the Society of Jesus to deepen and transform our life and mission of faith-justice-reconciliation, in light of the four Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) that will orient the Society for the next ten years. Located within the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, the SJES promotes the social and ecological apostolate of the Society of Jesus and animates the social dimension of the mission across apostolic sectors and works throughout the world. 

Framed around the new UAPs, our gathering allowed us to delve deeper into this living story of the service of faith and the promotion of justice. Each morning incorporated individual testimonies related to a specific UAP with personal and communal prayer and small group reflection in the afternoons. The UAPs provided lenses for us to discern how we are being called to respond in our life and mission. Leading members of different apostolic sectors provided insight into how the social dimension continues to deepen its integration into their respective apostolates. A conversation on networking and collaboration provided space for organizations, like the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN), to share their experiences of advocacy and collective mobilization among Jesuit, Catholic, and secular groups.

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We were 210 participants hailing from 57 countries and every Jesuit province. Jesuits, religious, and lay women and men, all collaborators of the mission of service of faith and the promotion of justice. Over five days, we discussed many global and local issues of social concern. Personal testimonies were shared and savored. Relationships were formed and renewed with an eye toward future collaboration and networking. Yet, the persistent challenge and call that I heard, explicitly on three occasions, kept bringing me back to the way of proceeding of Pope Francis. Tenemos que estar a la altura del Papa Francisco. Let’s keep up with Pope Francis!

In the Q&A period after sharing his personal testimony, Cardinal Pedro Barreto, SJ, archbishop of Huancayo, Perú, and Vice President of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), reminded us that for years the Society of Jesus has been ahead of the Church, pulling the Church. Cardinal Barreto said, “We have to catch up to Pope Francis… Now, it is Pope Francis who is pulling [the Society of Jesus]. Let’s not leave Pope Francis alone.” Amid serious tensions among Church leaders, divisiveness ridden across societies, and the firm conviction that it is “my way or no way”, Pope Francis models how we should proceed. Like Pope Francis, women and men in Jesuit works across the globe are paving the path of faith and justice, by walking with the poor and excluded, laboring for social transformation, and inspiring others to carry on the torch. 

Let me emphasize three points that emerged in our gathering. The first is the role of encounter. Pope Francis references this at length, see here, here, and here. Authentic conversion requires relationship with the marginalized, a friendship with the poor that St. Ignatius often spoke and wrote about. Second, our reflection and action must respond to the cries of the poor and of our common home. In our societies, “we are faced… with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (Laudato si’ #139). The last point comes from our private audience with Pope Francis on the fourth day. His words are worth reading in their entirety, but I will keep it to one point.

Does the social apostolate exist to solve problems? Yes, but above all to promote processes and to encourage hope. Processes that help people and communities to grow, that lead to awareness of their rights, to deploy their skills and to create their own future.

The poor and excluded are not objects of study or mere recipients of our charity; they are and must be the protagonists of their stories. Our task is not to focus solely on providing solutions to the unjust, inhumane realities that oppress them. Rather, we must be engaged in processes of liberation where they are the principal actors and we are collaborators, so transformation might be realized. And through our accompaniment, service, research, and advocacy with and for the marginalized and vulnerable, we experience the hope that only faith can afford. This hope emboldens our commitment and strengthens our zeal to remain with the crucified peoples of our time.

I begin with Pope Francis because of his way of proceeding. The cries of the earth and of the poor that pierce his heart usher him into solidarity with those on the margins. His words and actions continue to inspire and encourage us. They show us a way forward.

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As important as it is to look forward, especially with such inspiration and example from Pope Francis, it is equally crucial to review our past. The story of the social apostolate is that of the story of the Society of Jesus which has responded generously, although sometimes reluctantly and meagerly, to the cries of humanity and the earth, to the profound changes in the ecclesial sphere, especially with the “aggiornamento” brought about by Vatican II, and, ultimately, to the Spirit that has animated the Society since its founding over 450 years ago. This history conjures up immense gratitude for the tremendous commitment as well as honest, critical reflection of its limitations and infidelities in the service of faith and the promotion of justice.

This story cannot be told without recalling the legacy of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, and countless martyrs: Jesuits, religious, lay women and men. They inspired this gathering of the social-ecological apostolate of the Society of Jesus. Fifty years ago, in 1969, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Jesuit Superior General, formed the SJES. Since 1969, 57 Jesuits and countless others have given their lives for their commitment to the poor and a more just, humane world. Their memory inspires and reminds us of the costs and consequences for living deeply this mission. In 1974-75, at a worldwide meeting called General Congregation 32, the Jesuits under Fr. Arrupe re-articulated their mission as that of “the service of faith and the promotion of justice,” noting unequivocally the inseparability of faith and justice.

Fr. Arrupe urged his companions not to be constrained by “this is how we have been doing it” and to be creative and bold in our actions, even if we err. These words still reverberate across the Society of Jesus:

I am not afraid of the new world that is emerging. I fear rather that the Jesuits have little or nothing to offer to that world, little or nothing to say or do, that can justify our existence as Jesuits. It frightens me that we can give yesterday’s answers to tomorrow’s problems. We do not want to defend our mistakes, but we do not want to make the biggest mistake of all: waiting with our arms folded and not doing anything for fear of making a mistake.

Despite pain, misunderstandings, and even resistance, the profound grace of being placed with Christ crucified and resurrected continues to inspire incalculable companions to make a preferential option for and with the poor. To accompany all crucified peoples of history to engender more just relationships. To dismantle oppressive structures and birth new ways of flourishing. And to live in joy, hope, and solidarity with God and all of God’s creation. 

This is also a story of worker priests. A story with centers of social and political analysis, alternative economic projects, innovative, transformative educational networks for marginalized, excluded children and youth, like Fe y Alegría, Cristo Rey Schools, and Nativity Schools. A story about accompaniment, service, and advocacy with and for displaced persons through the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). 

This story continued through personal testimonies by participants in the SJES gathering who have been transformed by encounter and relationship with people on the margins.

We heard from Honduran Jesuit Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno whose critical voice on the Jesuit-run Radio Progreso and ardent struggle with the poor and persecuted discomfort the US- and Canadian-supported Honduran political-military-business establishment. 

Lisa Connell, Social Delegate for the Australian Jesuit Province, shared her journey of faith that led her to study different disciplines, working with people of the Aus Aboriginal communities, Uganda, and Afghanistan, deepening her sense of justice and solidarity. 

Father Greg Boyle, SJ, brought the room to tears as he shared with us his journey of kinship with the homies of East L.A., emphasizing that we do not go to the margins to make a difference; rather, we place ourselves with people on the margins so that they might change us! 

South African activist and law student Noluthando Honono (the gathering’s youngest delegate) echoed the voices of young people asking us to listen to their dreams, even if they surpass our current structures and ways of thinking. 

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Pope Francis concluded his speech at our audience by emphasizing prayer. Prayer and work, contemplation and action, are two sides of the same coin, especially in the Ignatian tradition. Prayer, I have found, keeps me alive and alert, not overburdened by the suffering around me. It propels me to deeper insertion among the discarded of society. My relationship with Jesus reminds me that I am not alone, nor am I doing this work alone. Prayer, Pope Francis emphasized, is what we cannot afford to surrender, especially if we are to continue this struggle for a faith that does justice.

Prayer, therefore, is not detached from human history. Prayer deepens our relationship with the God of Life who ignites our boldness and creativity. And, prayer awakens us from our slumber and complacency, ushering us into real encounter with the excluded in our world.

In a prayer during the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where retreatants are invited to pray at the foot of the Cross, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ, one of the eight UCA Martyrs frames it as follows: 

 “Before the crucified people… ask yourself: what have I done to crucify them? What am I doing to take them down from their crosses? What must I do so that these people will rise again?”

 Pope Francis encouraged us to be with the “crucified peoples of our time,” through direct accompaniment, service, analysis of the world’s reality, and cultural and structural transformations. As the SJES Jubilee concluded, the threads weaving across each participant’s unique context pointed to a common call to authentic conversion: a conversion rooting itself in the crucified peoples in our world. 

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The questions before us are multifaceted, and no single gathering or document will provide the answers. Yet, we have to keep up with Pope Francis. He is leading, challenging, and urging us – the Church, the Society of Jesus, and all of humanity – to respond magnanimously to the cries of the poor and the earth. To be with the people on the margins and to listen attentively to the excluded, discarded voices, to the lamentations that gasp for justice. To uproot our biases, expand our horizons, and renew our ways of seeing and being. The task at hand is daunting and extensive. It is complex and contextual. And, fed by the God of Life and “the life and death of the martyrs,” our response should be concrete and genuine, magnanimous and prophetic, keeping up with Pope Francis and not leaving him alone.

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Image courtesy SJES.

  1. It was founded in 1969 as the “Jesuit Secretariat for Socio-Economic Development” (JESEDES), in 1975 was renamed as the Social Secretariat SJ, and finally in 2010 Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, then Superior General of the Jesuits, renamed it “Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat” (SJES).

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